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Makerspaces: Fostering a 21st century business model

From Dr. Carrie W. Gray, Managing Director of  WRC, Special to the News Journal

I’m not surprised that Wilmington was recently named by DataFox as No. 5 on the list of 2015’s Best Cities to Found a Startup Outside Silicon Valley and New York.

Why should I be?

In the last five years, Wilmington’s start-up community has skyrocketed. Growing from hacking sessions and Meet Ups hosted at The coIN Loft (Wilmington’s first co-working space for tech-minded startups), to two more co-working/start up incubators, a second successful Tech2Gether conference, the launch of Delaware Innovation Week, Zip Code Wilmington and a chapter of Girl Develop It – it’s clear that Delaware’s tech community is only going to get bigger and better.

When Arkadi Khulman, the godfather of internet banking, wanted to launch his next banking start up, he chose Wilmington because not only is this an extremely business friendly state, but also because the talent is here – both in banking, tech and startups.

So with all of this energy and focus on fostering a healthy start up and tech environment, it’s no wonder Wilmington is positioned higher on DataFox’s list than Seattle, Austin and Providence.

Today, existing startup and incubation spaces 1313 Innovation and Start It Up Delaware/The coIN Loft have done a really great job of fostering the growth of businesses that are expanding every day and showing a lot of promise – Carvertise, Katie O’Hara Design and the award winning The Barn Creative are just a few examples of the talent that is being fostered in these spaces.

This spring, The Mill Space will open in the Nemours Building, adding another option for entrepreneurs who interested in collaborative co-working communities.

This is the bright future of our city that we need to continue to grow.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in recent weeks with the news of major corporate mergers. I get it, these are major employers and it’s never easy to imagine the changes that may occur. However, I also see a lot of opportunity in our future.

As our city imagines a bright business future, the tech and entrepreneurial start-ups that may be developed by the talent in our community have great potential and will likely play a big role in helping to secure, sustain and grow the employment opportunities in Wilmington and Delaware.

But perhaps the biggest opportunities can be found in the convergence of the creative arts and tech communities. The board and staff at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (DCCA) have realized this opportunity and have put forth a vision to transform the DCCA to become The Delaware Contemporary – still a museum for contemporary art, but also a space where the arts, tech and design intersect.

What does this mean? Well, big things actually. And mostly it creates new opportunities for two halves of our creative community to come together in a unique way.

Take, for example, the Cell Phone Disco that is found in what was previously a dark alley in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District. The Cell Phone Disco visualizes the electromagnetic field of an active mobile phone on a giant 16’x16’ light screen, illuminating 2,034 individually controlled LED lights in an unprecedented pattern.

In a dark alley that you would have avoided before, visitors are now drawn to enjoy the art that is created by technology. This project is a perfect example of how artists and tech folks can work together to create a unique installation that dramatically changes the city landscape.

So, if artists and tech enthusiasts in Wilmington wanted to work together on a project like the Cell Phone Disco, and actually create the final product, where would they do it? What space would have the tools and equipment available to them to make their vision a reality?

Currently, that is the one piece of the puzzle that is missing in Wilmington’s arts and tech communities. But the good news is, that is about to change.

In the spring of 2016, NextFab will be opening a location in Wilmington’s Creative District. Founded in Philadelphia by Dr. Evan Malone, NextFab is a for-profit social enterprise focused on building diverse collaborative communities empowered by direct access to advanced manufacturing technology, and providing the training, consulting and startup company incubation services required to turn ideas into products, and products into businesses.

To put it more simply, NextFab is a makerspace.

What’s a makerspace? Evan will tell you it’s a “gym for innovators.” A facility where membership is scaled based on how often the user will be in the space or the type of use they will need. A place where members also have access to equipment, software and trainings that they could never afford to have in their home, but when shared with other members makes it not only accessible, but affordable.

When I walked into NextFab two years ago, I was immediately struck by how many different types of activities were taking place every day – from software and equipment training, to photography, 3D printing, electronics, welding, woodworking and metalworking. And the makers who were using the space were so thrilled to have the access to the equipment and staff assistance that they’d never get at home on their own.

In the six years that NextFab has been open in Philadelphia, its successes have been many, including pioneering a new business model, growing its employee base from one to 25, growing its member community from zero to more than 700, and incubating nine startup companies that collectively created 29 new jobs, received nearly $3 million in investment and earned more than $1.5 million in revenue.

Here in Wilmington, NextFab sees the potential to realize similar results. By partnering with existing co-working spaces, the growing maker community and local educational institutions, NextFab will provide a space where products can be made, a marriage of technology and manufacturing can be tested and artists can scale up their production. A makerspace is the answer to these needs, and so many more.

For the Wilmington of the future, NextFab is additive. As we build on the history and legacy of our city’s entrepreneurial and innovative past, we grow the 21st century model of how business works. Creative thinking is the new R&D and creative thinkers possess a highly sought after skillset that today’s businesses want and need.

When NextFab opens its doors in Wilmington’s Creative District, I cannot wait to see what innovations will be developed in Wilmington’s first makerspace.

Behind the Scenes is a new column by leaders of area arts organizations that will look at how they cope with the demands and challenges of focusing on the arts in the First State. Dr. Carrie W. Gray is managing director of the Wilmington Renaissance Corp.

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